Will Jesus be able to pull himself up this time, or is he too weak? Will he die here, rather than up there, just ahead of us?
We have now begun the last part of the journey to his crucifixion. The road has given way to a rough, stony, path that makes the uphill walk even more difficult. The weight of the Cross on my shoulders is now heavy and the skin is sore, especially where the splinters have entered.
The wood is so rough. It is hard to believe that it was once a thing of beauty, for now it has become an object of pain, of shame and degradation. How easily people can turn beauty into ugliness! Where are the branches, leaves, flowers and fruits that once made the parent tree something to be cherished and admired? What will be the effect on the world of this one small, rough-hewn beam that will soon bear the weight of Jesus? Will it be remembered or forgotten? Is it not ironic that a carpenter, who created beauty from wood will also die on wood, his very medium of loveliness and creativity becoming the instrument of his shame, torture and death?
Jesus is now very weak and I am not sure if he will make it up the hill. I saw him shudder as we arrived here. He looked up towards the gallows that are already permanently erected and onto which he will be fastened after his hands are nailed to this crossbeam that I, Simon of Cyrene, the innocent one, bear for one who is even more innocent.
Strangely enough, it is now I who feel guilty, I, who have committed no crime, I, who carry the Cross of one who has been condemned to death.
I feel guilty because of my rebellion when the soldiers pulled me from the crowd and forced me to help a condemned man on his way to Calvary. I feel bad that I was so unwilling to help one who was helpless.
I am guilty because he is guiltless. Is that a paradox? I do not think so. I have watched him make his way towards a certain, predestined, agonising end and have seen his gentleness and integrity shine through his degradation. Even though he has been in such pain, he has shown compassion for others: he showered compassion on his mother, a woman who wiped his bloodstained face with a cloth and on some women who wailed at the side of the road. He did not look for pity for himself: he showed pity for others. That is unique. That is a generosity and a selflessness that I have never, ever, seen before. That is why I am guilty. I wanted the crowd to feel for me, to see the injustice of the soldiers as they condemned me to walk beside the Nazarene on his way to Calvary.
I am guilty because I resented Jesus. I resented the indignity that his suffering inflicted upon me. At first, I wanted to retaliate and hurt him even more for all that was happening to me. In my anger, I thought that he deserved his end and that it could not come too quickly or too painfully.
Yet I could not escape the Via Crucis because I was also forced to walk alongside Jesus. I was forced to look into the eyes of others and see, not just the anger and the condemnation, the scorn and the ridicule, but also the pain in the eyes of those who loved him. I saw the anguish of those who had never known Jesus, but who could not bear to see the gratuitous brutality of men who behaved worse than beasts, for animals would never treat one of their own in the way that I saw men forget their humanity.
As I stumbled along my own Via Crucis, I did not fall, but I felt the aching shoulders that would have been those of Jesus, except that I had not been scourged. I took on his tiredness but did not assume his pain. Somehow the contrast made an unexpected mark within my heart. It was as if I suddenly saw, for my first time, the face of others as if I had been blind until this very moment. I was blind, but now I see. Does that sound strange? My eyes had never been diseased, but the eyes of my heart had been turned in upon myself. I had been closed to the sufferings of others, had never known what it was like for a parent to watch beside a dying child, had never thought of the agony of a family that knew one of its members to be sentenced for a crime of which he or she was innocent. Until now, I had never considered the senselessness of violence and injustice, had never prayed for the ill-treatment of another person to come to an end. Until I walked beside Jesus, it had never crossed my mind that I could want to take someone into my arms and defend them from further hurt, yearn to kiss away the anxiety and the wretchedness, replace anguish with peace and love.
Could I dare say that, carrying the Cross of Jesus, even for this short distance, I am learning what it means to love? Am I crazy?
I am suddenly realising that, when I see Jesus stumble or notice some sign of pain in one of the crowd, I am the one who flinches and wants to be able to defend and shield them. Is Jesus teaching me compassion? Is Jesus teaching me love?
We are now very, very close to the summit of Calvary. Jesus has fallen a third time. This fall is different from the others. He is so weak that he might not manage to stand again. Yet, this time is different. The crowd is quiet and subdued. The soldiers who pull Jesus to his feet are almost gentle. It is as if they, too, know what it is to feel guilt. They have also realised that they are about to kill an innocent man and are ashamed.
Now, it is only the truly hard of heart who have not been touched by Jesus. The tragedy is that they are forcing themselves to even greater depths of shame as they decide they have to see this through to the bitter end. Whereas some of those who were responsible for condemning Jesus would now seek to release him, there are also those who think that, by killing him, they will be able to escape from the heinous crime that, in their heart of hearts, they know they are about to commit. They will not be deterred.
Father God, forgive me for my earlier sins. Thank you for the privilege you have given me in letting me know the Cross of Jesus. Father, forgive these people who have not learned the lesson that Jesus has just taught me. Now, Father God, I would willingly die with Jesus. His blood and mine will be mingled on the Cross, but I will not die. I must carry the knowledge of all that I have seen and experienced to the end of my days. Father God, thank you for this Cross.